‘I was excited to be seeing India, but I felt shocked when I saw what the slums were really like. I’d never seen children living in the streets before,’ admits Skye-Rose Grimley, a pretty, blonde-haired nine-year-old who has always lived in Dubai. Skye recently visited the day centre as a volunteer with Kids’ Theatre Works!, the Dubai-based drama school which ran a series of musical theatre classes for the children at Harmony House. She says of her experience: ‘I didn’t expect people to be living with so little. And I didn’t think children who had so little could be so happy either. When I visited the slums, I felt really guilty that I’d always had so much. Lots of children in Dubai don’t know how lucky they are. At one point, I ran to stroke a puppy that was lying down, but found it was actually dead – not just sleeping – among the rubbish. That’s what the slums are like.’
But despite her initial reaction, Skye says her trip to Harmony House has been one of the most positive things she’s ever experienced, and has vowed to return to see her newfound friends in the near future. ‘The thing I most remember is the feeling of happiness at the centre and how friendly all the children were,’ she recalls. ‘They immediately made me welcome and I made lots of new friends. The girls were fascinated by my blue eyes and long, blonde hair. They were always asking if they could plait it for me,’ she laughs. ‘And my nickname became Skye-didi, which means sister.’
As well as helping with the musical theatre and drama classes, Skye spent her trip pitching in with the chores required to run Harmony House, which is now in its third year, and offers daily refuge for 200 children from Delhi’s notorious slums. Her duties involved helping to look after the youngest members (who start at Harmony House at the age of six months), to serving meals, assisting in the kitchen and teaching the children new English words. ‘I learned quite a few words in Hindi from them too!’ she says proudly.
Lucy Bruce, mum-of-two and founder of Harmony House, which is a UK registered charity, is keen to encourage more children to become involved with such initiatives. Also the founder and director of Home Grown, Dubai’s first completely eco-friendly nursery, which helps to support her charity initiative, she explains: ‘Children are never too young to learn about compassion and giving to others, and I do think it’s especially important for those kids who have been lucky enough to have such a privileged upbringing in Dubai to see what life is like for children who are less fortunate.’
Lucy opened Harmony House back in 2009. ‘Originally, I’d wanted to open a home that would take a handful of orphaned girls and bring them up in a safe, family environment so that they could be properly educated and have a good future,’ she explains. ‘But, quite rightly, the Indian government is not in the habit of handing over orphans to complete strangers. I was told I had to prove myself through another kind of charitable initiative and so the idea for a day-care or drop-in centre for the slum children was born. We started off with 30 children, and today we have 200 youngsters, ranging in age from infancy to 16 years old.’
Harmony House, Lucy explains, provides clothing, shelter, hot meals and schooling for children – and medical care for all those who live in the slums, regardless of whether they have children attending Harmony House or not. ‘Parents who live in the slums need to work, so instead of being able to go to school, many children have to look after their younger siblings – or they beg on the streets. Harmony House provides a safe environment, where the children can come and be fed, clothed, washed and educated while their parents work.’
It’s a challenging project that was initially focused on providing basic care. With growth and support, that focus has now changed. ‘Educating the children, rather than just feeding, clothing them and taking care of their physical needs, has become one of our biggest goals, and that was why we were so delighted that Kids’ Theatre Works! came to run some classes for our children. We’ve spent so much time focusing on the essential care, we underestimated just how much they’d benefit from some music and dance classes. They really loved learning the routines and songs, and I saw a definite shift in their confidence levels. So every day now, Harmony House runs musical theatre sessions where they repeat the routines. It’s uplifting for everyone!’
But despite the progress, Lucy is still hoping to expand the initiative in the next six months. ‘We are taking care of 200 children now, but there are another 600 on the waiting list, and we have to turn people away, which is absolutely heartbreaking. We are trying to expand so we can take up to 400 children. That will mean either moving the entire operation to another, larger premises, or actually opening up a second centre in another city location. It brings its own complications because we don’t have the funds to buy a property in Delhi – the houses are extremely expensive, so we rent. That means we have to find a house that is suitable and a landlord who is willing to allow slum children to occupy his property.’
And that’s where Dubai’s young community can help, says Lucy. Already, every one of Home Grown’s students is paired with a child from Harmony House. Approximately Dhs100 per month of their fees are used to support a slum child. In return, Harmony House provides regular updates and photos of that child’s progress. Students from Dubai College have also visited the Delhi-based centre, and last year classes from the English College Primary School decided to buy the children from Harmony House Christmas presents, instead of running their own secret Santa. It’s this kind of generosity that makes such a difference, says Lucy.
But it’s a two-way street that also benefits the child who gives, says Emily Madghachian, Skye’s mum and founder and artistic director of Kids’ Theatre Works! ‘The whole experience has humbled Skye in a way I didn’t expect. I knew it would be eye-opening for her, but she now has a much deeper understanding of the concepts ‘need’ and ‘want’. If she asks for something unnecessary, I’ll remind her of our trip to Harmony House, and straight away, she understands that lots of things that we have in Dubai aren’t really important. It’s given her more confidence, too, and she no longer sweats the small stuff. It goes without saying that we had an amazing time there. We’ll definitely be organizing another trip soon.’
Singing for a cause
Want to help Harmony House? Take a trip to the theatre and show your support
Don’t miss the annual stage extravaganza The Works! 2012. Written by the students of Kids’ Theatre Works!, the two shows on June 1 and 2 will be raising awareness and support for Harmony House. Emily Madghachian explains, ‘We couldn’t think of a better initiative to support than Harmony House, because like us, they put children at the very centre of their philosophy. We’re always especially proud of our annual productions, which really are an extravaganza, because our students are the ones who have come up with the creative ideas and written the shows themselves. This year, we will have 260 students taking to the stage. And it’s all in aid of a terrific cause.’
The Works! 2012 is split into two shows. The musical theatre show (which will have three performances) will take place on June 1 and will include a range of songs and routines from classic musicals. Expect hits from Little Shop of Horrors, Mama Mia, Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, South Pacific, The Wizard of Oz, The Little Mermaid and much more. The second show is drama-based and will take place on June 2. The theme of both productions (as decided by the students) is ‘Love’ and they are a must-see for kids of all ages, especially those who like nothing better than a rollicking sing-along.
Tickets are priced at Dhs75 each and can be purchased directly from Kids’ Theatre Works! or the Ductac box office, www.kidstheatreworks.com or www.ductac.org. For more information about Harmony House or to make a donation, visit www.harmonyhouseindia.org.